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Yello journalism

[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Pay no attention to that new New Order album behind the curtain. Way more fabulous electropop awaits you elsewhere. Loath as I usually am to recommend best-ofs, the new compilation Essential Yello is actually worth buying. But first, a trip through dreamland.

About a year ago I dreamed that I was standing on a beach looking up at a hot-air balloon not far off the ground. In the gondola was Boris Blank, the clonish-looking guy with the short hair in Yello. (Dieter Meier is the other guy, the one with the slicked-back hair.) Though he seemed quite alive and was gazing into the distance, for some reason I was sure that Blank had just died in a balloon accident. I desperately needed to break the news to the world. Long moments passed as I stood there looking right at a dead yet undead Blank riding the balloon that I was sure had just killed him. Then I woke up. [Of course, this dream turned out to be a restatement of a Yello video, whose title eludes me and which I do not have on tape, in which Boris Blank does in fact float around in a balloon.]

That dream, if staged with dance accompaniment by La La La Human Steps and/or DV8 Physical Theatre, would work well as a video for the Swiss duo. They're kooky, these guys. They make dance music you can't dance to. They breathed life into an old crooner, but didn't smirk while doing it: Where Art of Noise gave Tom Jones a quick campy makeover in a rendition of Prince's "Kiss," Blank and Meier opted for a fittingly classy rehabilitation of Shirley Bassey in "The Rhythm Divine," whose video maximized the diva's intrinsic elegance.

Blank and Meier live and work separately. The former writes the music and sends it to the latter, who dreams up lyrics. Meier doesn't sing, he vocalizes, adopting vaguely unnatural-sounding voices – a faux-Satchmo ("Rubberbandman"), a whisper ("I Love You"), a mumble buried in the mix ("Goldrush"). Meier is the musical analogue of boyish, right-on actor Tim Robbins, who always seems to portray characters who mumble to themselves.

The genius of Yello is the sentimentality it evokes through unabashed use of synthesizers. (Yes, I am sentimental. I admit it.) Blank is not much interested in making a synth sound like a grand piano; there's no mistaking the presence of electronic keyboards in a Yello tune. Of course, you could say the same about that scourge of worldwide dance floors, techno. Like the Pet Shop Boys, though, Yello's warm emotional impact is far in excess of the sparing keyboard chords that trigger it. Yello and the PSBs show that you don't need a full-fledged orchestra, or even much of a singing voice, to emote; doing more with less seems like a good working definition of Art to me.

Have a Nice Day

Speaking of best-ofs, Rhino Records' ongoing series of Have a Nice Day recordings – compilations of "Super Hits of the '70s" – seems to be treading shallower and shallower water. Already a full nineteen volumes in breadth, the Have a Nice Day series looks back at the 1970s with more of a documentarian ear than a connotative one. Kids like me – in our late 20s-slash-early 30s – vaguely recollect some of these tunes; I tend to remember the one-hit wonders, the over-the-top funk/soul/electronic experiments whose lyrical snippets nicely fit together in that "medley" style so popular on the Donny and Marie Show: "Torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, me and you and a dog named Boo paved paradise and put up a parking lot the night Chicago died. Looks like we got us a convoy." If I want anything to remember the '70s by, it's these songs – and a few dozen disco numbers.

But no. Have a Nice Day insists on including unfabulous but well-meaning filler like Burton Cummings' "Stand Tall." The series cries for customized re-editing to crank up the fabulousness. We keep hearing about the eventual arrival of on-demand purchasing of music and movies; maybe then we'll be able to download our own selected treasure of '70s excess. For now, we have to put up with too much chaff with the wheat. But I guess that's just how they make records in the 1990s – even compilations.